A veteran of Afghanistan talks about duty, sacrifice, and the meaning of his Island welcome.
Army Sergeant First Class Kirk Birchfield, 33, relaxed in a chair on the porch of the clubhouse at the Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown and enjoyed the view of the manicured rolling greens and turf last Thursday.
But his thoughts were not far from a much more barren and hostile landscape half a world away.
“How did I go from a valley in the worst place in the world where people are trying to kill me on a daily basis, to one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life and some of the greatest people I’ve ever met,” he said as he thought about the sequence of events that had brought him to the Island last week.
Exactly four years earlier, late in the day on October 3, 2009, Sergeant Birchfield was making his way down a steep mountain at the head of a group of soldiers intent on a mission to relieve the men of Combat Outpost Keating (COP), an outpost set in a deep ravine surrounded by mountains in one of the most hostile areas of Afghanistan, under attack by a force of more than 350 Taliban.
Thursday was unusually balmy for October and the last day of his visit to Martha’s Vineyard as part of a group of 11 soldiers, both active and retired, invited by the Nixon family of Chilmark, owners of the Beach Plum Inn, Menemsha Inn, and Home Port restaurant, to fish in the 68th Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby and just relax.
The Nixons, sponsors of the American Heroes Saltwater Challenge, a fishing respite now entering its fifth year, had arranged the golf outing at the exclusive club. As he spoke to The Times about his experience and the Army, Sergeant Birchfield was the focus of some good-natured banter from the other members of the golf outing for a remarkable shot out of the bunker on the 18th hole.
Three of the visitors had previously served at COP Keating. SGT Randy Robinson in 2006, and Specialist Nathan Nash and SGT Shane Scherer in 2008-2009, good friends who were happy to reunite under far more pleasant circumstances. The four provided a timeline of service at the base that an Army report later determined had “no tactical or strategic value.” The base had been attacked 47 times in the five months preceding the battle on October 3 as the enemy probed for weak spots, and intelligence reports of a major attack went unheeded.
Sergeant Birchfield arrived at COP Keating in 2008 at night in a helicopter following three months stationed at an observation post on top of a nearby mountain.
“The next morning, the sun comes up and I step out of the door and I just see mountains, high ground all around us, and I just say, who would do this, we cannot defend this. But whether or not we can defend, hey, you’re there, make the best of it, you have a mission to complete.”
The base, which was slated to be closed, was protected by a contingent of about 35 Americans and an equal number of Afghan troops. One day before the attack, Sergeant Birchfield and the base commander took what was supposed to be a brief helicopter ride to a nearby observation post. A bullet fired at the helicopter hit a fuel line and the helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing at a nearby main base.
The Taliban’s earlier attacks had been preparation for the main attack that began that morning. About 3 am on October 3, insurgents ordered all villagers to leave the area; none of them warned the Americans, according to an Army report.
Using the high ground to their advantage, the insurgents opened fire from all sides of the outpost just before 6 am. The attackers quickly overran the base and set fires that burned down most of the barracks. Within the first hour, the defenders had “collapsed their perimeter” to the immediate area around the command post, which became “their final fighting position.”
Sergeant Birchfield, along with his commander and platoon leader, were desperate to return as the Army organized a quick reaction force to relieve the outpost. But heavy enemy fire prevented landing any helicopters close to the outpost.
The men landed on a nearby mountain. Gathering what forces were available, they headed down the mountain. Sergeant Birchfield, who knew the mountains, led the way on point, avoiding known trails because he suspected they would be bobby-trapped.
“At the time, your friends are down there, your men are down there getting shot up. And I had no reservations about picking up my rifle and going down that mountain because they needed my help.
“At one point, I thought, this is it. Mentally, I said goodbye to my wife, goodbye to my kids, and started down the mountain. And if it took my life to get these reinforcements down the mountain, so be it. Those were my brothers, my family.”
There were a few skirmishes on the way down the mountain. They could see buildings burning and heard calls for help on the radio. Only two days before everything was where it should be. When they arrived everything was on fire and two men from his platoon were in body bags, among eight on the ground.
“It was a shock.”
Sergeant Birchfield said he learned of the Vineyard trip from Jake Tapper, CNN chief Washington correspondent and author of, "The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor," published by Little, Brown and Company.
“He realized I needed a break because I’ve been going through some stressful things lately,” Sergeant Birchfield said, “partly today, being the anniversary of the attack on COP Keating where I lost a lot of friends.”
The trip to the Vineyard provided a welcome change. “It’s been a breath of fresh air to be able to talk to people that have had the same experiences and share with people that are helping veterans, let them know what we went through,” he said.
“It’s good to know that people acknowledge what we've done over there because we’ve been over there so long that it’s getting to the point that people are asking if we’re still in Afghanistan. I’ve actually had that question asked a few times.”
Sergeant Birchfield said it is important that people realize the sacrifices that so many have made over the years, and know that our troops are still there. Those sacrifices are significant. As of October 1, 2013, the U.S. military reported 2,143 total deaths and 19,334 wounded in Afghanistan as a result of Operation Enduring Freedom.
So few do so much
A native of Gila Bend, Arizona, Mr. Birchfield grew up listening to the members of his family and other veterans talk about their service, and he wanted to follow in their footsteps. He joined the Army at the age of 17. “It is all I ever wanted to do,” he said.
The army is his career. “It’s a brotherhood knowing you can depend on the person next to you, in front of you, or anywhere around you, regardless of color or race or anything like that,” he said of the Army. “Like any job, you have your good days and your bad days, but I’d say the majority of mine have been good. Overall, I’ve enjoyed my 15 years and I wouldn’t change any bit of it.”
Sergeant Birchfield said that about one percent of the population ever serves in the military, and those few do so much for the country. “I still have quite a few friends in Afghanistan,” he said. “A lot of them are on their third, fourth combat tours.”
Soldiers return for a variety of reasons. Foremost is the love of country and the combat experience. “Nothing compares to leading men in combat,” Sergeant Birchfield said. “I describe my year in Afghanistan as both the best and worst year of my life. Worst being that I lost a lot of friends. But nothing can compare to men depending on you in combat, that leadership role.”
Of the Afghan soldiers that day, he said it was a mixed bag. “At the time it seemed like we were focused on quantity over quality,” he said. “There were some that fought and there were some that were just very scared and didn’t fight.”
Sergeant Birchfield was responsible for nine men in a cavalry scout platoon. “There are great leaders, but you can’t be a great leader without great men. So you are only as great as the men you lead.”
He is currently stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. His wife, Lindsey, son, Dustin, 11, and daughter, Savannah, 8, are happy to have him safe and home. The return from Afghanistan and the transition from a combat situation where he was under constant stress and 100 percent focused on combat took some time.
Knowing there were no roadside bombs or ambushes and no one was out to kill him was a relief but took an adjustment. “Just switching your mindset from being on guard, all day, every day, to, hey, we’re just getting up in the morning and taking the kids to school,” he said.
Time is a big factor and support. Sergeant Birchfield said the Army does really well providing services to help soldiers make the transition. Counselors, psychiatrists, and classes that provide the tools to move on are readily available. But nobody changes overnight, and memories linger.
“I know people today that still have issues, me being one of them, of adjusting to normal life again because you do have bad memories, nightmares.
“I have recurring nightmares of the battle of COP Keating, October 10, 2009. I lost eight of my friends, 22 of them were wounded that same day and I have the constant feeling I could have done more, I should have done more to bring my men home.”
He paused and continued, “Whether it be giving up my life or whatever it took. Like I say, the Army is a brotherhood. You get to know their families and their kids, their wives, their mothers and fathers as a matter of fact, so when you lose one, it's like losing a brother.”
Visiting Martha’s Vineyard will not erase the memories. But it has let him know, he said, that people appreciate “what we’ve done.”
Over the five-day visit he fished in saltwater for the first time and caught a bluefish, striped bass, and bonito. “I just loved it,” he said. “The crews were great.”
He added, “I wanted my wife to be here and experience this. Hopefully, we can come back again, together.”
Asked if he would go into combat again, Sergeant Birchfield said, “I’m like any other soldier, they hear the trumpets and we go towards it. If they said time to go again, I’m packing my bags.”
He added, “Nobody goes to die. We go to do our duty and fight for our country.”
This column was originally published in The Martha's Vineyard Times in October 2013. This Memorial Day weekend, with much of the nation's attention focused on the coronavirus, it is important to remember the sacrifices the holiday is meant to honor.